End of virtual council meetings ‘a backwards step’

The decision to local councils to scrap virtual calls and return to face-to-face meetings in person from May has been criticised across the county as a ‘backwards step’.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

Last week, the minister for Local Government, Luke Hall wrote to council leaders to inform them that emergency legislation allowing virtual council meetings will not be extended beyond May 7.

It means that from May 7 onwards, all councils – from Devon County down to the parish councils – will have to resume meetings in person, and also applies to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, as well as the Police and Crime Panel.

The decision has left councillors and councils angry, and North Devon Council has already re-arranged its annual council meeting from its usual May date to April 7 to ensure that it can be held virtually.

A spokesman for North Devon Council said: “We are extremely disappointed as along with helping us carry on with committee meetings through the pandemic, it has brought a great number of other benefits to us. Living in such a rural area, the option of virtual meetings would mean far less travelling time for councillors and officers which is not only more efficient but is helping to cut our carbon footprint.

“It also makes life easier for parents and people with caring responsibilities. We feel this is a major backwards step and the government really needs to rethink this.”

Teignbridge District Council managing director Phil Shears said that the decision will present ‘significant logistical and financial challenges’ to ensure meetings can be held safely.

He added: “This decision is very disappointing. Across the country virtual meetings have been seen as a great success to increased participation and inclusion, as well as enabling local authorities to address their climate change agenda. Public viewing figures have shown an increase in participation in our council meetings, and they have also enabled councillors with caring or employment related responsibilities to more easily accommodate meetings.

“Facilitating large public council meetings indoors, when other areas of the sector will still be required to meet outdoors, will require a significant amount of officer time, which will be deflected from our core council business at a time when we are focusing on continuing to support our residents and our local economy recover as we come out of lockdown.

“Given that the government’s roadmap is science and data driven, as opposed to dates, it is surprising that the government has not legislated for virtual meetings to continue until the vaccination programme has been completed, or in line with the legislation that allows MPs to meet virtually until June 21.

“I will be discussing these concerns about the announcement with my District colleagues and MP.”

A Devon County Council spokesman said: “This decision presents all local authorities with a complex challenge in deciding how best to hold face-to face council meetings safely after May 7.

“We will be looking very carefully at the detail of the new guidance before considering the best approach for the County Council.”

A spokesman for Mid Devon District Council added: “We will be looking at the new guidance in detail before we work out the best approach for our authority, in line with current Covid restrictions and with safety paramount.”

And Devon’s Liberal Democrats have criticised the plans, with leader of the Lib Dem Group on Devon County Council, Cllr Alan Connett, adding: “Forcing local councils to meet face-to-face in just over a month’s time makes no sense and potentially puts people at risk.

“Making large groups of people meet indoors for meetings which often last more than two hours, when we’re trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, is unbelievably daft. This affects councillors and council staff. Some may have had Covid jabs, some not and some may have clinically vulnerable family at home.

“It should be up to our local councils to decide when it is safe to return – not the Conservative Government.”

Cllr Denise Bickley, who sits on East Devon District Council, as an East Devon Alliance councillor, added: “This is a terrible backward step when virtual meetings have been working perfectly well, saving time, money, emissions, and meaning councillors have been able to attend for more meetings than they would in person. I’m very angry.”

Councils though are being encouraged to continue to live stream the meetings to meet the legal obligation to ensure that the members of the public and press can access the meeting without having to physically attend.

Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, in his letter to councils, said: “Extending the regulations to meetings beyond May 7 would require primary legislation. The Government has considered the case for legislation very carefully, including the significant impact it would have on the Government’s legislative programme which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times.

“We are also mindful of the excellent progress that has been made on our vaccination programme and the announcement of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions. Given this context, the Government has concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time.”

He added: ““While local authorities have been able to hold meetings in person at any time during the pandemic with appropriate measures in place, the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the Government’s plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the coming months.”